Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the Great War

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

To chronicle the roots of the catastrophe of the Russian Revolution and Soviet communism, Alexander  Solzhenitsyn explored the First World War. Here is a selection of his most famous work on the war, August 1914. It is a depiction of the suicide of General Alexandr Samsonov,  the Russian commander who lost the bulk of his 2nd Army at Tannenberg and committed suicide at the end of the battle. 

The Death of an Army Commander
From August 1914, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

But they could never sit for long. The brief hours of night would soon slip away and with them, their last chance. Toward midnight, the moon lowered and was clouded over, together with the stars. They could see nothing in the dark as they stumbled along in single file sensing each other's presence only by the crackle of twigs underfoot and their own heavy breathing. The forest trail had got much worse. It was swampy and sometimes the way was barred by impenetrable undergrowth or by dense thickets of young pines. They thought it would be dangerous to stray in the direction of Willenburg where they could easily run into a German patrol. They bunched closer together and kept calling out in low voices. Now there were no more halts. Whenever they came to ditches, Kupchik and a Cossack captain gripped Samsonov by the arms and pulled him across. 

What Samsonov found most burdensome was his body. Only his body. It dragged him down into pain, suffering, shame and disgrace. To rid himself of the disgrace, the pain and the burden, all he needed to do was to rid himself of his body. It would mean passing over to freedom—something he longed for—like taking a first really deep breath with his congested lungs. Earlier that night he had been reduced to a mere sacrificial idol for his staff officers. Now, after midnight, he had become more like a pillar of stone that could scarcely be moved any longer. 

General Alexander Samsonov

The hardest thing was to get away from Kupchik, who kept right behind him, sometimes touching his back or his arm. But as they skirted a thicket, Samsonov tricked his orderly. He slipped to one side and stood dead still. The sound of branches crackling and breaking, and the lumbering tread of heavy footsteps faded away. 

It was quiet everywhere. The whole world was hushed. Armies had ceased to battle. Only a fresh night breeze stirred, ruffling the treetops. This forest was not hostile. It belonged neither to the Germans nor to the Russians but to God, and it gave refuge to all His creatures. 

Leaning against a tree trunk, Samsonov stood for a moment and listened to the sound of the forest. Near by, the torn pine bark creaked in the wind. And above it all, just under the sky: the cleansing sigh of the treetops. 

He felt more and more at peace. He had come to the end of his long soldier's career. He was abandoning himself to danger and death. Now ready to die, he had never imagined that it could be so simple, and such a release. 

But the only trouble was that suicide is held to be a sin. 

The hammer of his revolver clicked back softly. Samsonov placed it in his cap, which had fallen to the ground. He took off his saber and kissed it. He groped for the locket with his wife's portrait and kissed it too. He walked a few steps to a place where the sky showed through clearly. It was clouded over except for one tiny star that vanished, then appeared again. Dropping to his knees on the warm pine needles, he prayed with his face lifted to the star —he did not know which way was east. First he said the ordinary prayers, then none at all. He just knelt, looked at the sky and breathed. Now he groaned out loud, without restraint, like any other dying forest creature: "Lord, forgive me, if You can, and receive me. You see: There was nothing else I could do, there is nothing I can do." 

Alexander Solzhenitsyn died on 3 August 2008 in his homeland. By the time he passed away, communism had fallen in Russia and he was either forgotten or treated in the press as an anachronism, subject to all the caricatures regularly piled on conservative traditionalists — anti-secularism, anti-modernist, intolerance of many shades, etc., etc. There were some fine appreciations written about him, however. A few recalled his greatest quote: “Live not by lies!”  Here is one of the best:

His World War I works are getting hard to find. was surprisingly unhelpful and you might have to do some searching for August 1914, November 1916, and  Lenin in Zurich to find  copies. It will be worth your effort, though.

1 comment:

  1. August 1914 is a brilliant work. November 1916 not so much. This might be a sort of global allegory by Solzhenitsyn since the Russian Army of November 1916 wasn't the same as in August 1914?
    Last August I visited the site where Samsonov died. The forest seems pretty much the same as described by Solzhenitsyn in this passage.